Athenry facility would consume enough electricity to power Bray

Background: There are 19 data centres in the Republic, with most on Dublin’s outskirts

Maurice Mortell, managing director for Ireland and emerging markets, Equinix: there is “no doubt” large companies are planning to increase capacity here.

Maurice Mortell, managing director for Ireland and emerging markets, Equinix: there is “no doubt” large companies are planning to increase capacity here.

 

Ronan Harris, head of Google Ireland, last year described the Republic as the data capital of Europe, and Apple’s proposed centre in Athenry, Co Galway, is just the latest in a long list of similar facilities that have set up here.

It is difficult to ascertain precisely how many there are, as companies are reluctant to broadcast the presence of such facilities for security, commercial, and competition reasons. However, we can shed some light on it.

Most data centres fall into one of two major categories: retail or wholesale. Retail data centres tend to involve smaller companies and could amount to just a single server or a room somewhere.

Larger enterprises generally prefer wholesale data centres, which are entire facilities that are tens of thousands of square feet in size. There are understood to be 19 of these in the Republic, 17 of which are in Dublin, while there is one apiece in Cork and Galway.

In Dublin, most are situated on the outskirts of the city centre, dotted along the M50 where they can take advantage of the T50 telecoms infrastructure, a high speed fibre cable that the various centres can link in to.

Microsoft and Amazon are understood to be building, with Amazon believed to have about €2 billion already invested in several data centres here. There are also a number of smaller companies building.

Separately, it is understood a planning application has been submitted for a large facility in Cork city, although it’s not known what company is involved.

Future centres

IDA Ireland is believed to be seeking advance planning permission for future data centres to avoid disputes such as the one that has delayed Apple’s proposal for Athenry, Co Galway.

A report last year by consultants Callaghan Engineering, commissioned by the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA), showed a sharp rise in the number of data centres in the next five years.

Among the companies it identified as seeking to develop data centres over that period were Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Vodafone, eBay, Yahoo, BT, Eir, EMC and Equinix, which is itself a company that designs, builds and manages such facilities.

Maurice Mortell, Equinix’s managing director for Ireland and emerging markets, says he is in “no doubt” large companies are planning to increase capacity here. “Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook have built or are building,” he says.

“I would be very, very confident that there are a number of new entrants coming to the market place. I’ve no doubt the larger companies are planning new capacity in existing sites and also building on new sites.

“A green field site takes 18 months to build from conception to design to operationally ready. The majority are in Dublin because telecommunications connectivity is primarily clustered there. A lot of the business infrastructure is also centred on Dublin.

‘Large footprints’

“They build these very large footprints with significant square metre capacity along with an awful lot of power to run them.”

Indeed, facilities of this size, because they are filled to the brim with machinery and technology, need hundreds of megawatts of electricity to power each one. Mortell says Apple’s proposed centre in Athenry will consume enough electricity to power a town the size of Bray, Co Wicklow.

The average centre uses so much energy that it ends up with an electricity bill of about €160 million. That being said, Mortell insists that “for every kilowatt of power that’s used in a data centre, there are probably 10 kilowatts used inefficiently out in the IT world”.

The Callaghan report said the influx of centres would lead to an 18 per cent rise in demand for electricity. It indicated an additional 1,136 megawatts of electrical capacity would be required to meet the projected demand from new centres.

EirGrid, in its Generation Capacity Statement 2016-2025, said “a key driver” of the Republic’s electricity demand for the next number of years will be the connection of large data centres. It predicted a 21 per cent increase in total electricity demand over the next decade.

Because of the demand for power, and what Mortell describes as a “time lag” in terms of electricity from the grid being made available, many companies develop substations alongside the centres to generate their own power.

The regions

A spokesman for the IWEA says he expects facilities to pop up in regions where there are good sources of renewable energy available. “For example, our big wind counties are Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Tipperary, Clare, and Galway,” he says.

“There’s a lot more happening from Cork into the midlands and up to the northwest than there is on the east coast. That being said, we’re still going to end up with a lot of investment on the east coast. There’s a lot going on out in Blanchardstown and Dublin west.”

While it seems there is merit to Google’s contention regarding Dublin’s place in the data centre eco-system, does this mean we can expect thousands of jobs coming down the tracks? Not likely, as the facilities themselves, once up and running, are not heavily manned.

“The actual headcount in a fully operational facility isn’t significant because it houses a lot of mechanical and electrical infrastructure, and a lot of the services are automated,” says Mortell. “You could be looking at 40-50 people.”

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